Political conventions, like many large scale national or international summits of high profile decision makers, attract thousands of protesters from nearly every conceivable cause. In theory, this should not be a problem, as after all, conventions are supposed to be touchstone moments in American democracy and what can be more democratic than people marching, organizing, and rallying to espouse their political views?
Apparently, however, not everyone shares that opinion. Political parties don’t like displays of dissent, because they want their conventions to be shows of unity that essentially serve as a political infomercial. Local and federal law enforcement view conventions as security events and those who protest as potential threats. While the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago has come to symbolize police repression of protests, protesters at nearly every national convention since have been met with some degree of police repression.
This year’s conventions posed particularly unique questions. The Cleveland Police Department is currently party to a consent decree with the Department of Justice due to their excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Philadelphia hosted the 2000 Republican National Conventions and the police engaged in a number of outrageous violations of protesters’ civil liberties, so many that longtime BORDC/DDF ally Kris Hermes wrote a book on the topic, Crashing the Party.
So just how did the police handle protesters at the convention?
Republican National Convention–Cleveland, Ohio
— Max RN (@MaxRivlinNadler) July 19, 2016
The Cleveland Convention was preceded by a number of doomsday predictions and fear mongering by the media, first with dire hypotheticals about violence by Trump supporters if he didn’t get the nomination, followed by hyped up fears about potential clashes between Trump supporters and Trump opponents.
This climate of fear was made worse by state intimidation. FBI, Secret Service, and local police visited activists across the country, especially Black Lives Matter activists, and people involved in Occupy Cleveland to question them about their plans for the convention, and in some cases, to tell them to stay away. Jocelyn Rosnick, who coordinated the Legal Observer presence at the RNC told Dissent NewsWire that law enforcement visited people’s homes, places of employment, neighbors and family members, and it wasn’t just activists who got visited, but even people who “hung out at the wrong bookstore” were targeted by the widespread intelligence gathering. According to journalist Arun Gupta (full disclosure Arun Gupta is also a BORDC/DDF board member), “The intimidation worked. Activists say many protesters were so frightened they left town or are avoiding the military-occupied downtown.” As a result, Gupta described most protests having fewer than 50 participants and not one with more than 500 participants.
Cleveland made clear they expected trouble, announcing that they had had made room in the jails for hundreds of protesters, and cleared court dockets to process arrestees. The city imported 2,500 police officers from across the country, including mounted units from Texas and Georgia. The city bought “2,000 sets of riot gear, 2,000 steel batons, 24 sets of bulletproof vests and helmets and 10,000 sets of plastic handcuffs,” and a $50 million protest insurance policy costing $9.5 million, to indemnify itself in the case of lawsuits for wrongful arrest which have cost other cities dearly. It would have been less expensive to train police not to make wrongful arrests in the first place.
And, in an innovative twist appropriate for snowy Cleveland, the city deployed snow plows to help keep the peace. The local Fox news affiliate reported “We’ve learned ODOT had 15 plows out on local highways last week in mid-July, and those plows had cameras feeding back LIVE video that was recorded as well.” Not only did the video feeds help monitor traffic, but “the plows with cameras also served as extra eyes for police in case protesters tried to block a highway.” And, the plows could help clear the streets of debris or disabled cars (whether left by protesters or others).
The city also created a bizarre list of items that protesters could not bring with them to the 3.3 square mile area “event zone” created by the Secret Service, which included tennis balls, canned goods, long pieces of string and sleeping bags. Ohio, however, is an open carry state and thus guns could not be prohibited. Activists and the media alike had a field day mocking the “no tennis balls, assault weapons ok” security precautions. Code Pink staged a protest in favor of gun control, entering the event zone carrying the prohibited tennis balls. They were quickly swarmed by police who seized the contraband.
Despite low numbers of protesters, police, often in riot gear, were out in full force.
— Max RN (@MaxRivlinNadler) July 17, 2016
The specter of mass arrests never materialized, not only because there were no masses to arrest, but because advocates worked with the city for months ahead of time in an effort to insure protesters rights would be respected, and over 100 Legal Observers were deployed by the National Lawyers Guild.
In the end, there were only 23 arrests, but many of those were questionable. On Wednesday, July 20, Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson lit a flag on fire. Police arrested him and 17 others who were present, including a photojournalist, for failing to disperse. But Ohio ACLU’s Christine Link told the Nation, “We’ve looked at half a dozen tapes from different vantages and we can’t hear or see any dispersal order, and the reporters and [National] Lawyer’s Guild observers did not see or hear a dispersal either.” Nonetheless, the protesters were held in jail overnight and not arraigned until late the next afternoon, and only then because lawyers protested at the delay (with media present).
Democratic National Convention–Philadelphia
The protests in Philadelphia were much larger, and the police presence much lighter than in Cleveland. That is in large part thanks to lessons Philadelphia learned after the disastrous Republican National Convention in 2000, when over 400 people were arrested, many held in jail for 2 weeks, with court cases dragging on for years. In the end, only about 20 people were convicted (or pleaded guilty) because protesters fought the unjust charges against them. It was largely that fight back and the bad publicity that forced the city to reassess their methods of policing protest.
But there still were some problems. While smiling bike police in polo shirts rode alongside protesters during a Monday afternoon protest, a police copter circled above. While police opened fire hydrants with sprinkler caps to cool protesters, undercover police infiltrated the ranks (attracting the notice of the U.N. Special Rapporteur).
Philadelphia police may not have gone knocking on doors of activists, but they did have them under watch. Before the protests began, a police spokesperson told The Atlantic that police were “already monitoring some of the groups who have received demonstration permits.”
And, while the city said it did not make any arrests, they did issue citations to protesters engaged in civil disobedience.
We had zero arrests. I can’t state that enough, 100 people this week who would have had criminal record who do not. pic.twitter.com/LocuLZ6kcF
— Jim Kenney (@PhillyMayor) July 29, 2016
Philadelphia civil rights attorney Paul Hetznecker challenges the mayor’s characterization of events. “They were arrested,” he told me. They were taken away in handcuffs, detained by police, photographed and fined. And don’t tell journalist Abby Martin that she wasn’t arrested, when police violently took her into custody and carted her away.
— Mike Prysner (@MikePrysner) July 25, 2016
It’s true that no jail time was served by those issued citations, but the goal of the process was to remove people from the protest, so they could not protest.
“Certainly, it’s good to see that we don’t have idealistic young people all being warehoused and framed, like happened at the RNC,” Attorney Larry Krasner told the local news. “But what we are seeing a different method, to get at the same thing – that’s suppressing their method, by pulling them from where they are, to make sure that they can’t be seen.”
And, while there were no ‘free speech zones’ restricting activists to a penned in area, police restrict protesters from certain areas. Perhaps most dangerously, protesters, and even residents, were not allowed to use the subway station near the convention center. The subway stop was the end of the line, and everyone without convention credentials were made to get off the train at a stop a mile away. That was not only an affront to the First Amendment, but to health and safety in the excessive heat.
There was also a pop-up restricted area. Hetznecker represents one of the 11 people who were arrested by the Secret Service for climbing over a fence outside the convention center on Tuesday and Wednesday. They are being charged with a federal crime for entering a restricted area under the control of the Secret Service. But on Monday, protesters who climbed the same fence and entered the same area were given only a citation. This is a problem Hetznecker told me. There was no way for protesters or anyone else to know where the area under control of the Secret Service began, or when it began to be restricted. He called it a “roving geographical area” that could be wherever the Secret Service decides they want it to be, and can come into being at any time.